In the battle for better K-12 education in America, the endless back-and-forth between teachers and school districts goes something like this. Teachers demand higher wages, schools demand linking it to higher performance, and both sides hit a wall. But something remarkable happened in Newark this month. A deal.
In early November, the teachers of Newark voted in favor of a new contract agreement where teachers rated "highly effective" in hard-to-staff areas would receive an annual $12,500 bonus. It is a more comprehensive plan than similar programs in places like Denver or Washington, D.C., and it represents a major shift away from the traditional union opposition to merit pay.
WHAT IS MERIT PAY?
Teachers' salaries are usually based upon experience and education, regardless of subject or ability. For example, gym teachers typically earn as much as science teachers. Teachers with a fabulous rapport with students and who stay up until the wee hours preparing a new lesson are typically paid the same as teachers who put in minimum effort. Teachers must wait until the tail-end of their careers to receive the fattest salaries.
For many in non-education jobs, this system seems starkly unfair (shouldn't people who work harder receive more money)? Yet, teachers themselves have continually opposed any changes in their system for determining salary.
Harry Brighouse, a professor of philosophy and education policy studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, explains that most teachers and their unions oppose merit plan proposals because they do not trust the evaluation process. First, they don't trust administrators and principals to properly distinguish good teachers from bad. Second, they don't trust standardized tests to measure excellence any better. Finally, there is a culture of solidarity among teachers, which has resisted any proposals by administrators or politicians to drive wedges between them.
But Brighouse says that merit pay can be fair and effective if teachers are rewarded for teaching in areas that are difficult to staff, if the evaluations are not based on test scores, and if school leaders are trained to evaluate teachers properly.
This is exactly the plan that Newark schools have cooked up.
The Newark Teachers Union, a branch of the American Federation of Teachers and Chris Christie, the Republican Governor of New Jersey, worked out a system of performance pay with a peer review component. Earlier this month, teachers voted to approve this plan 1,767 to 1,088.
Under this plan, teachers will be evaluated by a panel composed of teachers, the principal, and an administrator. An oversight committee will adjudicate all disputes. During class observations, the evaluators will use a rubric to grade teachers based on their ability to put together a compelling class lesson and students' response to this lesson. These rubrics are still being designed with the help of consultants and the usage of existing models. Test scores might be considered part of a whole portfolio of assessments.
Joe Del Grasso, the president of the Newark Teachers Union, said that he wanted to make sure that teachers have a voice in the process. "Teachers should be treated like other professionals, like doctors or lawyers," he says. "Doctors sit in on process for reviewing doctors. Teachers should also be reviewing their peers." He thought that teachers would prove to be tougher evaluators than administrators and offer more valuable feedback of performance.
Teachers will be evaluated as highly effective, effective, partially effective, or ineffective. Teachers who are highly effective will receive bonus money, while those on the other end of the scale could lose tenure.
Teachers' salaries will still be largely determined by experience and education for these evaluations would only affect bonus pay. The money for the merit bonuses will come from a $100 million donation to Newark schools from Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook.
THE END OF THE EDUCATION COLD WAR
Strikingly, the teachers union worked in conjunction with the tough-talking, union-busting Governor Christie to iron out the details of the Newark plan. Though Christie sprinkled his speech at this summer's Republican National convention with anti-union rhetoric, he and Del Grasso appeared to have a very amicable relationship.
Del Grasso said that dealing with the Governor was very positive and pragmatic. The Governor was very willing to compromise on certain points in order to finalize the project. New Jersey's Commander-in-Fleece appears to have a very different persona when he's behind closed doors with other policy makers.
Del Grasso said, "the governor likes to say we're on different streets, but we all have to get on the same boulevard. We all have our own points of view, but we can compromise on the boulevard. Christie was gracious enough to compromise."
Christie was not the only participant to compromise on this deal. The teachers' unions have traditionally opposed merit pay measures. The NEA, the other major teachers union, continues to fight these measures, which makes a state-wide plan unlikely. Yet, the AFT worked jointly with the Governor to create this plan.
THE FUTURE OF MERIT PAY
So, why did the unions change their mind?
According to Jeff Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia's Teachers College, the merit pay program in Newark is a sign of the political weakness of teachers' unions. The AFT, which is more nimble and politically savvy than the NEA, has recognized that they must show that unions are not in the business of supporting bad teachers or opposing innovation. Brighouse also noted that the AFT, more than the NEA, is responding to the increasing pressure to do things differently.
Henig said, "local teachers unions with the blessing of the AFT are softening their rigid objection to some kinds of merit pay and some incorporation of student outcomes rather than risk that this will happen without them at the table."
Unions have seen smaller programs implemented in other areas without adverse impact on teachers.
Henig also points out that the Zuckerberg money reduced the stakes in this fight, since new bonus money would not be taken from other areas in the budget. Del Grasso was confident that foundations and other philanthropic organizations would continue to provide money for this program, when the Zuckerberg money was gone.
Del Grasso said that he was never really opposed to the idea of merit pay, because he had once worked in a factory where it was the norm to reward extra effort with a bonus. He also said that the peer evaluation component of the Newark deal made the plan more appealing to union members.
This deal in Newark certainly represents a new mode of education politics, one marked by a weakening of hardline positions by both Republicans and teachers unions. Newark's program will certainly lead to similar programs across the country. Unions that fail to bend may not survive the new education world. Hopefully, the big winners from the end of the Education Cold War will be the kids.
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.